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Hylomorphism (Greek υλο- hylo-, "wood, matter" -morphism, Greek -μορφη, morph, "form") is the metaphysical concept that all natural bodies consist of two principles, form and matter. The word and the concept were first developed by Aristotle in rejection of an atomistic explanation of change. Aristotle argued that if the particles making up one entity were replaced with particles making up another entity, that would be a process of destruction rather than change. In order for change to occur, there had to be two principles involved, one that changed while the other remained the same. Aristotle distinguished matter as the passive and indeterminate substance that underwent change, while form was the constant, actualizing principle. The concept of matter and form applied to all beings, animate and inanimate, but Aristotle considered the human soul and body to be a special case of form and matter.

The concept of hylomorphism was interpreted by Greek and Arab commentators on Aristotle in various ways. After Averroes’s commentaries on Aristotle were translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and Aristotle’s teachings became available to Christian scholars, the concept of hylomorphism was absorbed into certain aspects of Christian theology, particularly in explanations of the Eucharist, and of the relationship between the soul and body of man.


Aristotle developed the concept of hylomorphism while contemplating problems associated with the processes of “changing” and “becoming.” He rejected the atomists’ view that everything is composed of tiny fundamental building blocks of matter, and that change is simply a rearrangement of these fundamental units. Aristotle contended that, in order to understand the process of existence, change, and generation it was necessary both to identify the primordial elements that constituted all bodies, and to identify the intrinsic conditions that made a body what it was. He adopted Empedocles' doctrine that all things consisted of four primordial elements: Earth, water, air, and fire.

To explain the process of generation and change, Aristotle declared that there were two principles at work, one that underwent change relative to the other, which stayed essentially the same. He argued that if a being changes and becomes another being, the two beings must have something permanent in common, otherwise no transformation could take place; instead, the first being would simply disappear and be replaced by the second being. Furthermore, this common element could not be a “being” in the strictest sense, because a being is static and cannot be in the act of becoming something else. Therefore this common element was a being “in potency,” a passive and indeterminate being. At the same time, there had to be an active, determining principle that directed the process of the change. Matter was the passive and indeterminate substance that underwent change; form was the actualizing principle that shaped and directed matter. This concept of hylomorphism was essential to almost all of Aristotle’s metaphysical and scientific speculation.

The primordial elements of earth, water, air, and fire resembled somewhat the chemical elements of modern science in that they could be considered to exist independently, having independent activities of their own, and could therefore be directly subjected to scientific experiment. Matter and form, however, could not exist independently of each other, but existed and acted only within the context of a composite being. Therefore they could not be studied directly and could only be known as metaphysical principles, through logical intellectual analysis. Hylomorphic compounds first became prominent in philosophy in Aristotle's conception of change, offered in Physics.

Body and Soul

Aristotle treated the relationship between the human soul and body as a special case of the general relationship between matter and form which existed in all animate and inanimate compound beings, whether they were naturally present or created by man. In De Anima (Body and Soul), Aristotle spoke of the soul as a “first actuality of a natural organic body,” as a “substance as form of a natural body which has life in potentiality,” and, similarly, as “a first actuality of a natural body which has life in potentiality” (De Anima ii 1, 412b5-6, De Anima ii 1, 412a20-1, De Anima ii 1, 412a27-8). These statements could be applied to all living beings—plants, animals, and humans alike. Aristotle maintained that the form was the actuality of the body, which is its matter. Matter was only a potential being until it acquired an actualizing form which made it an actual being. Therefore, in the case of the human soul and body, it was the soul that informed the body and gave it character and form.

Theory of Causation

The concept of matter and form was developed within the greater context of Aristotle’s theory of causation. Aristotle taught that a complete account of all there is to know about a particular being must include information about what he termed the “four causes” (aitiai):

  • the material cause: that from which something is generated and out of which it is made
  • the formal cause: the structure which the matter realizes and in terms of which the matter comes to be something determinate
  • the efficient cause: the agent responsible for a quantity of matter's coming to be informed
  • the final cause: the purpose or goal of the compound of form and matter

For most cases, Aristotle claimed that a complete explanation required reference to all four causes, and that once such reference was made, no further explanation was required. There were some cases in which things that could be explained did not have all four causes; for example, geometric figures did not have efficient causes. However, in the case of all living beings, all four causes came into play.

Aristotle argued that all change and generation required the existence of complex beings. In the process of generation, matter took on a new form. The process of change was less fundamental; a being continued to maintain its essential form while acquiring a new feature or a different appearance. In the case of the human being, the soul itself was the essential form of a person (generation), and perception involved the acquisition of accidental forms (change). However, Aristotle did not accept all instances of perception as genuine instance of change or ongoing development of the soul.

Matter and Form in Medieval Philosophy

The concept of hylomorphism was interpreted by Greek and Arab commentators on Aristotle in various ways. The medieval Jewish philosopher Ibn Gabirol took the hylomorphic concept of form and matter and derived the doctrine of emanation, that there emanated from God a Universal Intelligence from which there emanated the World- Soul, and that from the World-Soul there emanated Nature, which informed the existence of the material world. Matter was of itself wholly inert and was made use of by the Infinite Agent to produce natural effects.

Aristotelian Islamic philosophers Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), Ibn Tufayl, and Averroes took a similar position. Islamic theologians rejected hylomorphism, because they felt the concept was mechanistic and did not allow for the spontaneous intervention of Divine Will in human affairs.

After Averroes’s commentaries on Aristotle were translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and Aristotle’s teachings became available to Christian scholars, the concept of hylomorphism was absorbed into certain aspects of Christian theology, particularly in explanations of the Eucharist, and of the relationship between the soul and body of man. In his commentaries on Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics and in his De ente et essentia (“Of Being and Essence”), Thomas Aquinas gave a full explanation of hylomorphism.

Modern Ideas

Some modern philosophers, such as Patrick Suppes in Probabilistic Metaphysics, argue that hylomorphism offers a better conceptual framework than atomism for the Standard Model of elementary particles. The Standard Model defines the form with the help of group theory and the particles (the matter) are the consequence of this order rather than the prerequisite for defining it. Thus, in a certain sense group theory is a modern version of hylomorphism.

In Basic Problems of Phenomenology (1929), Heidegger described the architect’s vision of form (eidos) as a drive beyond the flow of moments to a constantly present appearance. For Heidegger, the “metaphysics of presence” thence arises through the unthematized transfer of this sense of being to all regions of beings. In A Thousand Plateaus (1980), Deleuze and Guattari picked up the critique of hylomorphism in the work of Gilbert Simondon and developed a non-hylomorphic or “artisanal” theory of production, in which artisans develop forms out of the suggested potentials of matter, instead of imposing their own creative ideas on passive matter. Simondon saw the political significance of hylomorphism as “a socialized representation of work,” the viewpoint of a master commanding slave labor. Deleuze and Guattari suggested that a hylomorphic representation of a body politic can be used to justify fascism, in which a leader comes from on high to rescue his people by imposing order on chaos.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barnes, Gordon P. “The Paradoxes of Hylomorphism.” The Review of Metaphysics. 56 (3):501. 2003.
  • Cooney, Brian. “A hylomorphic theory of mind.” New perspectives in philosophical scholarship. 2. New York: P. Lang. 1991. ISBN 0820415456
  • Klima, Gyula, Allhoff, Fritz, and Vaidya, Anand. Medieval philosophy: essential readings with commentary. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. 2007. ISBN 1405135646
  • McMullin, Ernan, Bobik, Joseph, and McMullin, Ernan. The concept of matter in Greek and medieval philosophy. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 1965.
  • Spearritt, Placid. Substantial composition: a critical study of matter and form. 1958.
  • Wulftange, Joseph, and Greene, Merrill. Hylomorphism and contemporary physics. Woodstock, MD: Woodstock College Press. 1952.

External Links

All links retrieved January 22, 2018.


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